Magnesium is having a moment: More people than ever are supplementing with this key mineral, seeking benefits like stress relief and improved heart health, bone health and brain health. But if you’ve ever considered supplementing with magnesium, you’ve likely encountered a bewildering variety of magnesium types on drugstore shelves. It’s like a battlefield out there! Magnesium glycinate vs citrate vs magnesium oxide and more. Which one is best? Turns out the answer depends on what symptom you’re looking to treat.
Why magnesium is so important to health
Magnesium, an abundant mineral in the body, is naturally present in many foods, added to other food products, available as a dietary supplement, and present in some medications (such as antacids and laxatives). The mineral plays a role in more than 300 chemical reactions that regulate a wide variety of activities in the body, including manufacturing proteins, muscle and nerve function, blood glucose control, and blood pressure regulation. Magnesium contributes to the creation and maintenance of bone and is required for the synthesis of DNA, RNA, and the antioxidant glutathione. Magnesium also plays a role in the active transport of calcium and potassium ions across cell membranes, a process that is important to nerve impulse conduction, muscle contraction, and normal heart rhythm. In short, the mineral is involved in everything from maintaining hormone balance to producing energy, regulating metabolism, controlling blood pressure, regulating body temperature, relaxing muscles. (Click through to learn how magnesium may be the secret to lasting weight loss) and how magnesium eases stress and anxiety)
Up to 80% of us are deficient in magnesium
“We have a magnesium deficiency that’s pandemic in our society,” asserts James L. Wilson, PhD, author of Adrenal Fatigue: The 21st Century Stress Syndrome. When asked how many people are deficient, Carolyn Dean, MD, ND, author of The Magnesium Miracle, says, “The numbers vary from 60% to 80%, but I say magnesium deficiency is probably close to 80%.”
In fact, a study in the BMJ journal Open Heart reveals that fewer than half of Americans get the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of magnesium, which is 400 to 420 mg for men and 310 to 320 mg for women. What’s more, the researchers say rampant subclinical magnesium deficiency is one of the leading causes of chronic diseases that should be considered a public health crisis. That’s because a deficiency impacts nearly every bodily system and can bring on symptoms as varied as tiredness, weight gain, cardiovascular issues, muscle cramps and inflammation that triggers pain and chronic disease.
Why doctors don’t routinely test for this deficiency
Most of our bodies contain roughly 25 g magnesium, with 50% to 60% present in the bones and most of the rest in soft tissues. Less than 1% of total magnesium is circulating in the blood, and the body keeps these levels under tight control. Assessing magnesium status is difficult because most magnesium is inside cells or in bone. The most commonly used and readily available method for assessing magnesium status is measurement of serum magnesium concentration, even though blood levels have little correlation with total body magnesium levels or concentrations in specific tissues.
When you combine how faulty the blood tests for magnesium are with the number of symptoms that magnesium deficiency creates, you can imagine why few doctors think to test magnesium stores when their patients have the hallmark symptoms of magnesium deficiency, which include fearfulness, twitching, poor sleep and just feeling on edge. “Doctors often can’t imagine all this could be caused by deficiency in a single mineral, so they’ll treat individual symptoms with drugs instead,” says Dr. Dean. In addition, many of us have come to accept the tiredness, edginess, aches and stubborn pounds brought on by magnesium deficiency as a side effect of our busy schedules, so instead of making excuses, we push through. Says Dr. Dean: “Because the mineral can affect so many things that we associate with day-to-day drains and aging, we just get used to living with the symptoms.”
Why magnesium deficiency is on the rise
The magnesium in foods like leafy greens, pumpkin seeds, almonds, dark chocolate and yogurt is delivered as an ion, the bioactive form of the mineral that our bodies can readily absorb and use, says women’s health expert Ann Louise Gittleman, PhD. But there’s a challenge, says Dr. Dean. “You can’t really get enough magnesium from foods because it’s depleted from the soil,” she asserts. And glyphosate, the weed killer used in farming, binds to magnesium, which makes it unusable. “Cooking and refining foods also deplete magnesium,” she adds.
In fact, one study found that 100 years ago, we consumed around 500 mg of magnesium from foods daily; today that amount has plummeted to around 175 mg. That’s a 65% drop in intake that the researchers attribute to increasing use of fertilizers and intake of processed foods. It’s a lot less than the amount we should be getting, says Gittleman. “As the body’s master mineral, we need between 500 and 1,000 mg of magnesium every day. But most of us only get half of that and the body uses it as quickly as we get it.”
Supplements can help boost magnesium levels
Another factor that impacts magnesium levels is aging and health conditions that impact the absorption of the mineral, explains David Perlmutter, MD, author of the Grain Brain series of books. “Magnesium supplements in their diverse forms are indispensable allies in our pursuit of optimal health,” he recently declared across his social media. What does he mean by “diverse forms”?
Turns out, the body has a hard time absorbing supplemental magnesium when it’s not bound to another molecule, explains Gittleman. So manufacturers bind the magnesium to other compounds like citric acid, the amino acid glycine or oxygen. Sometimes the sole purpose of these binding molecules is to transport the magnesium, but other times these molecules boast healing properties that add to magnesium’s health perks, she says. Read on to see which form might be best for you.
Magnesium glycinate vs citrate
Among the many forms of magnesium supplements (see more below), magnesium glycinate and magnesium citrate may be the most common and the most powerful. Magnesium glycinate combines magnesium with the amino acid glycine, while magnesium citrate is made by combining magnesium with citric acid, or citrate.
Experts agree that magnesium glycinate is extremely bioavailable. That means it has a high rate of absorbability, key for triggering benefits like better sleep, fewer headaches and better blood sugar control. It’s also easy on the GI tract, since its quick absorption in the small intestine prevents it from hitting the large intestine, where it can lead to diarrhea and other GI issues, Gittleman says.
Another key difference is the price: When taken in capsule or tablet form, magnesium glycinate can cost twice as much as magnesium citrate, as is the case with NOW Foods Magnesium Glycinate, which costs $0.14 per tablet, vs NOW Foods Magnesium Citrate, for just $0.07 each.
So how to choose a magnesium supplement? It all depends on the benefits you want:
Consider magnesium glycinate if…
You struggle to sleep
Magnesium is proven to help the body maintain healthy levels of GABA, a neurotransmitter that helps us relax. Additional research shows that taking magnesium boosts production of the sleep hormone melatonin. Plus, animal studies show that glycine kicks up the benefit by helping produce serotonin, a hormone that plays a role in how well and how long we sleep. (Click through for more on how magnesium glycinate is best for sleep.)
You want to strengthen your bones
You’re at risk of diabetes
Magnesium improves fasting blood sugar levels and insulin production, and the addition of glycine contributes by reducing systemic inflammation and improving glucose tolerance.
Consider magnesium citrate if…
You suffer from constipation
Doctors often recommend magnesium citrate as a cure for occasional constipation, as it has a mild laxative effect, but when in high doses, it can cause diarrhea, since more of the mineral makes its way to the large intestine, drawing in water.
You’re worried about kidney health
Taking 300 to 400 mg of magnesium citrate daily blunts the absorption of compounds called oxalates that can trigger kidney stones (Click through to learn more about how oxalates in healthy foods can cause fatigue). The result: You’ll cut kidney stone risk by 80%, suggest findings in Biophysical Reviews. What’s more, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center scientists found that folks who boosted their magnesium levels enhanced their kidney function by 103%. (Click through for more ways to keep kidneys healthy.)
Other forms of magnesium to consider
As you can see, in the magnesium glycinate vs citrate, it all comes down to the benefit you’re looking for. But still other forms of magnesium offer additional health perks:
Magnesium L-threonate protects the brain and wards off restless legs
Because of its ability to cross the blood-brain barrier, taking this supplement can improve memory function and protect the brain from age-related damage caused by free radicals. What’s more, German researchers say this form of magnesium can decrease symptoms of restless leg syndrome by up to 59%. And in addition, magnesium L-threonate seems to be the best at penetrating mitochondrial DNA membranes, which leads to a boost in energy, says Joseph Mercola, DO, author of Fat for Fuel. Podcaster and physician, Peter Attia, MD recommends choosing a magnesium L-threonate supplement that contains the proprietary form of the mineral called “magtein,” which he takes at night. One that fits the bill: Life Extension Neuro-mag L-Threonate.
Magnesium sulfate boosts mood and energy
Best known as the key ingredient in Epsom salts, magnesium sulfate can improve mood and energy. The reason? Jill Carnahan, MD, says magnesium sulfate speeds the body’s detoxification. That detox process also eases bloat caused by trapped lymphatic fluid, especially in the ankles. In addition, magnesium sulfate can help relieve minor aches and joint stiffness and pain. To get the mood-boosting benefits, add 3 cups of Epsom salts to a hot bath. (Click through to discover if a vitamin D deficiency could be causing your fatigue.)
Magnesium chloride eases anxiety
This form of magnesium, which the body absorbs well, can help to lower anxiety, and in a study published in the journal PLOS ONE, researchers found that supplementing with magnesium chloride improved symptoms of depression. The form of magnesium chloride recommended by podcaster and physician, Peter Attia, MD: Slow-Mag Mg Muscle + Heart, who explains that he takes this in the morning.
Magnesium taurate lowers blood pressure
An animal study published in the Journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicine suggests this form of magnesium, made by combining magnesium with the amino acid taurine, may help lower blood pressure.
Magnesium oxide quells heartburn
Although magnesium oxide is the one doctors prescribe most, Ken Berry, MD, author of Lies My Doctor Told Me, says it’s the least absorbed. It is, however, good as a laxative, since Japanese researchers have found that taking magnesium oxide before bed improves bowel function in just 8 hours. It’s also used as an antacid to help ease indigestion and heartburn.
3 magnesium-rich drinks to get the perks
The editors in our test kitchen created these dreamy teas, which deliver body-healing magnesium. They’re made with 2 tsp (or 360 mg) of magnesium glycinate powder (try Best Naturals Magnesium Glycinate, buy on Amazon, $15.16 for 605 servings), but if you’re looking to get the benefits of magnesium citrate, you can make a delicious tea using 2 tsp (or 325 mg) of lemon raspberry magnesium citrate powder, like Natural Vitality Natural Calm (Buy on Amazon, $21.89 for 108 servings) in hot water twice a day.
1. Hibiscus-Cinnamon Lift
- 1 hibiscus tea bag
- 2 tsp. magnesium powder
- 1 cinnamon stick
- Splash of cranberry juice
Pour 1 cup boiling water over all ingredients; let steep 3min. Sweeten to taste.
2. Turmeric-Thyme Tension Tamer
- 1 turmeric tea bag
- 2 tsp. magnesium powder
- 1 sprig thyme
- 1 slice fresh lemon
- 1 tsp. honey
- Splash of apple cider
Pour 1 cup boiling water over first 4 ingredients; let steep 3 min. Stir in honey and apple cider. Garnish with apple slices and cinnamon sticks, if desired.
3. Green Tea–Ginger Elixir
- 1 matcha green tea bag, such as Lipton
- 2 tsp. magnesium powder
- 1 sprig fresh mint
- 1 thin slice ginger
Pour 1 cup boiling water over all ingredients; let steep 3 min. Remove ginger. If desired, sweeten to taste with agave syrup.
For more on how getting more magnesium can positively impact health:
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A version of this article originally appeared in our print magazine, First For Women.
This content is not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis. Always consult your physician before pursuing any treatment plan.